On The Rock: Summer in wild + literary Newfoundland

15 May 2013

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By Barb Sligl

“This walk will change your life.”

It’s the guide’s intro to a morning jaunt through a place unlike any other on earth. We’re in Gros Morne National Park, on the west coast of Newfoundland. And it looks like we’re on another planet.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is like the scientific equivalent of the Pyramids, or Newfoundland’s version of the Great Wall—a massive geological wall, that is. As UNESCO puts it, “the park provides a rare example of the process of continental drift, where deep ocean crust and the rocks of the earth's mantle lie exposed.” Add some glaciation, and the result is otherworldly scenery: coastal lowland, alpine plateau, fjords, deep valleys, steep cliffs, towering waterfalls and untouched lakes. The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be out of place here.

And, fittingly, despite the sun beaming bright and hot, guide Chris Oravec warns that snow could make an appearance—after all, it’s as if we’re in anything-can-happen Middle Earth, if not the ends of the earth. But happily, she adds, “It’s Writers. The week of Writers always has sun.”

It’s why a good chunk of us are here, for the Writers at Woody Point festival (although just as many far-flung visitors have come simply to visit this unique place). The fest is a weekend-long extravaganza that brings internationally renowned writers, musicians and literary fans to this remote, wind-swept, literally earth-shattered corner of the globe.

Guide Oravec uses phrases like “colliding continents” and “ripping apart” to describe what happened here some 485,000,000 years ago. It’s like Mother Earth gave birth to Gros Morne Mountain, a bald-headed monster of mantle that has no business being this far above sea level.

We’re looking at the oldest rock on earth (think 4.5 billion years), igneous rock from far, far below that was effectively “bulldozed” atop the earth’s crust when the tectonic plates collided half a billion years back. That “squishy, taffy-like” rock, as Oravec describes it, is now the flat-topped Tablelands.

There’s a hush. A collective sense of awe overcomes the group. The past, unadorned, unchanged, is right here, right now. And, it seems, we’re all standing upon an ancient seabed. Ocean floor is mountaintop and two landmasses that should be separated by thousands of kilometres of water—tabletop-like Gros Morne Mountain and Big Level—are both part of what’s now Newfoundland, and only 12 km apart. There’s no other view like it on the planet. It’s mind bending.

Welcome to Newfoundland, also fittingly known as The Rock. Just down the road is the tiny town and base of the writers’ fest, Woody Point, where more mind bending is in store. Oravec leaves us with this send-off: “Enjoy our park. Enjoy the silence. Enjoy the sunny weather the writers have brought.”

In Woody Point, the festival kicks off with a tribute to one of Newfoundland’s most beloved and iconic writers, Al Pittman. His daughter Emily’s words are a primer for the next few days here: “This passion for Newfoundland was born in places like Woody Point.”

The cup runneth over with passion in this fishing village turned literary outpost on the shores of Bonne Bay. It’s the type of fest where you’ll exchange beer-tasting notes with local Clyde Rose, Pittman’s one-time publisher, and guest writer Michael Ondaatje, and get offered an impromptu boat tour of the bay. Characters here are almost comically friendly—in a very good way.

One local musician-cum-captain has travelled the world on tour but chose to return here, working the ferry from Woody Point to Norris Point with a twinkle in his eye and ready smile. It’s like the line about Blackhat George in a Pittman poem, “...he’s come home to learn to walk again.”

Woody Point seems to have become a rather high-profile beacon for the creativeminds set. Award-winning journalist Stephen Brunt founded the fest after coming to the area on a writing assignment. He “fell head over heels in love with the place,” and his family bought a home the next year. And, after a local group got together to help restore the Woody Point Heritage Theatre, the idea of staging a literary festival here was formed. “I hardly knew what a literary festival looked like, and ours evolved into something different than most,” says Brunt.

Now in its tenth year, the fest draws literati and legends like Ondaatje and Pulitzer Prize-winning Richard Ford (this year’s big names are Man Booker Prizewinner Anne Enright from Ireland and Giller Prize-winner Will Ferguson) and is hosted by CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers. Singers and songwriters add musical mojo to the mix, from The Sharecroppers (also known as Newfoundland’s West Coast Ambassadors) to Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea (who proves that no one performs music like a Newfoundlander).

One local band, All the Wiles, even redefines a walk through the woods. During the Writers in the Wild event, a snaking line of festival-goers on the dappled Lomond River Trail emerges from the forest into a sun-soaked meadow to listen to the band’s poignant folk/roots stylings. One couple finds an inviting patch in the long grass away from the crowd and lays down to listen as if enchanted.

Other stops along the way: a fantastical puppet show in another meadow, storytelling around the sun-bleached bones of a moose, and a heart-tugging reading by author Michael Crummey by the river banks. The whole surreal experience begins prophetically with guide Fred Sheppard saying, “Who knows what magic and wonder and beauty will happen on the trail.”

That’s the resounding feeling here—every walk, every step, could change your life. Hiking, singing, dancing, laughing, weeping... all in one day, one place. “We put the fun in profundity,” says Brunt, and it may just end up as a quote on a future poster for the fest—that and Ondaatje’s comment that it’s the best writing festival he’s ever attended, anywhere.

Perhaps it’s something in the water... or that rock. The Rock. After all the revelry, across the water to the north side of Bonne Bay, the road winds away from the imposing Tablelands, past Big Level, to another jaw-dropping chunk of rock that seems to jut straight out of Western Brook Pond (yes, in Newfoundland, far-reaching fjords are humbly called ponds). The cliffs are taller than the CN Tower and the waterfalls plummeting off them are some of the highest on the east coast.

Here, again, Mother Nature reminds us of her power and own brand of poetry. That the Writers at Woody Point takes place in a tiny town between such geological wonders is only fitting. As the guide at the Tablelands put it a few days ago on what was once another continent, “The real lesson of this place is how tenacious life is. Life really, really wants to hang on.” Perhaps that’s why here, in enchanted and otherworldly Newfoundland, the cup runneth over with such passion.

If You Go

Writers at Woody Point
This unique festival, where readers, writers, musicians and locals mingle like old friends, takes place this year from August 14 to 18.

For more info go to Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism: